Riisager: Qarrtsiluni, Månerenen / Holten, Aarhus So

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It was sad, listening to this excellent disc--sad because of all the post-Nielsen Danish composers, only two, Holmboe and Riisager, have much hope of becoming...

It was sad, listening to this excellent disc--sad because of all the post-Nielsen Danish composers, only two, Holmboe and Riisager, have much hope of becoming genuine concert favorites, and the chances of Riisager getting a fair break are next to none. Today's musical establishment, especially in Europe, places no value whatsoever on the very qualities that make Riisager worth hearing: clarity, craftsmanship, accessibility, and melodic beauty. Sources of arts funding have become so politicized, bureaucratized, and utterly unresponsive to feedback from the taxpaying public, as well as so focused on what is modern and trendy rather than on what is good and stands a chance of succeeding, that this music probably is doomed to relative obscurity. It's a minor miracle that any of it gets recorded, so at least record collectors have a chance to sample now and then.

Riisager's cause is further harmed by the fact that his principle field of work was ballet. A student of Roussel, his aesthetic is French in the best sense: immaculately polished surfaces, transparent but often dazzling orchestration, no wasted gestures or gratuitous point-making, supple rhythms, and memorable thematic material. Now that Mr. Boulez and his crew have succeeded in destroying several centuries of this same French style and tradition even in France, it's hard to imagine any place (barring a miracle) that can serve as a staging ground for the resurrection of Riisager's posthumous reputation. Denmark itself probably isn't influential enough culturally to promote him widely, and as noted above, likely wouldn't do it even if it could. Even Dacapo, wonderful label that it is, needs to avoid playing favorites with so many composers scrabbling over limited resources and the privilege of being heard on disc. Still, if I were running that label, I would be planning as much Riisager as possible because at least he stands a chance of selling, and I can't imagine anyone who hears his music not enjoying it and not wanting to buy more.

Actually, Qarrtsiluni has been recorded previously, by Rozhdestvensky on Chandos, a performance a good 25 percent slower than this one, and I have to say that Bo Holten's more energetic vision serves the work very well. The piece is a sort of Inuit folk-influenced rhythmic study in the manner of Ravel's Boléro, or perhaps more aptly, Revueltas' Sensamayá. After a brief, harmonically pungent introduction, the music slowly builds to a vibrantly intoxicating climax (Finnish composer Uuno Klami's Kalevala Suite also comes to mind here). It's all over in about eight and a half minutes (11 if you're Rozhdestvensky), and as a short ballet or concert work it provides an ideal introduction to the composer and his pellucid sound world.

Manerenen (Moon Reindeer), composed in 1956, is a "choreographic symphony", to use Ravel's term, lasting some 45 minutes and based on a beautiful Lapp myth somewhat akin to the Rusalka or Undine legends. A young girl on the losing end of a love triangle asks the help of a demonic sorcerer to win the heart of her beloved. He agrees, but at a terrible cost about which he had revealed nothing: she becomes his slave, every evening transformed into a beautiful white reindeer that lures young men to their deaths (the sorcerer controls a whole troop of them, it turns out). When at last her dual identity becomes known, her newly-won boyfriend, who at first defends her, finally kills her. The music is as magical as the tale itself: sad, primal, full of nocturnal mystery alternating with colorful dance numbers, very much in the style of Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé conceptually (though it shares Copland's open sonorities and rhythmic zest). Riisager quotes no actual folk music, though he's obviously caught the idiom and, more importantly, has the taste and talent to treat simple materials with great subtlety and sophistication.

Holten and the Aarhus Symphony play the music with more than the necessary commitment and enthusiasm, obviously relishing its many opportunities to create evocative sonorities and glowing textures, and Dacapo's sonics are simply ideal: warm, focused, and clean. If ballet companies outside of Denmark would pick up some of these works, I have no doubt that they would be very successful with the public. In the meantime, I can only urge listeners to snatch up whatever orchestral music of Riisager's comes along, in the hope that someone at Dacapo or elsewhere will notice that they have a potential winner on their hands and get behind him in a serious and methodical way. Given the vast amount of characterless crap foisted on the public as "new music", Riisager is a composer whose distinctive body of work, firmly contemporary but also listener-friendly without pandering, deserves the widest possible exposure. [5/31/2005]
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com

Product Description:

  • Release Date: July 19, 2005

  • UPC: 636943602225

  • Catalog Number: 8226022

  • Label: Marco Polo

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Knudage Riisager

  • Conductor: Bo Holten

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Aarhus Symphony Orchestra

  • Performer: Bo Holten (Cond.)